The unfurling of an Iraqi flag over the government house and hospital in Fallujah doesn’t mean the city has been taken from the Islamic State. The group’s forces are still fighting on the western outskirts, and American and Iraqi commanders say the battle isn’t about to end.
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Fallujah is the second major city that Iraqi forces and Shi’ite militias – with U.S. air support above – have captured from the Islamic State. This was preceded by the taking of Ramadi about 70 kilometers away; the hope is that Fallujah will be followed by an ouster of the Islamic State from the Libyan port city of Sirte. The next stage is expected to be the capture of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria.
These two cities present a much larger challenge than those from which the Islamic State has been ousted in recent months. More than a million and a half people live in Mosul. In Raqqa, the Islamic State receives help from Sunni tribes that oppose the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. His regime has become the most important factor in the war against the group.
These campaigns will require much larger forces than those for Ramadi and Fallujah. The major concern is that a victory will come at a huge price in civilian lives.
About 250,000 people were living in Fallujah before the campaign that began on May 22. About 90,000 remain, dependent on the behavior of the Iraqi troops, threats to settle scores with suspected collaborators with the Islamic State, and reconstruction after the heavy bombing and shelling.
In Ramadi, for example, more than six months since the Islamic State was ousted, people still can’t return to their homes due to a lack of infrastructure and the explosive charges laid by the group. The reconstruction cost is estimated in the billions of dollars, which the Iraqi government doesn’t have.
Unlike with Ramadi, Sunni forces and former members of Saddam Hussein’s army who cooperated in the past with Al-Qaida still exert control in Fallujah, and in the two and a half years since the town’s capture by the Islamic State, they have been collaborating with the group.
It’s expected that the battle for Fallujah, which has been deemed part of the war on terror and therefore has attracted international military support, will become a domestic fight between the administration of Iraqi President Haider al-Abadi and his rivals in and around the city. When that happens, Fallujah will cease to be a focus of outside interest.
Still, the conduct of Iraqi forces in Fallujah after its capture will have a major influence on these troops' ability to continue toward Mosul. A bloodbath in Fallujah would send a clear signal to the residents of Mosul, most of whom are Sunni Muslims, on what’s in store if the Islamic State is ousted from their city.
Many of them, either willingly or by force, have cooperated with ISIS, and some even helped the organization capture the city from the Iraqi army, which fled Mosul in June 2014. In the best case, there would be trials for suspected collaborators. More realistically, they may be punished and even executed without trial.
There are also major questions about the strategy the Islamic State will adopt as it loses territory in Syria, Iraq and Libya. This year, the group appears to have abandoned its aspiration to extend its territory, concentrating instead on defending the areas that it still controls, which have shrunk by more than 40 percent.
The number of its fighters has also dropped, with some moving to Libya and others returning to their countries of origin. The hefty funding that the Islamic State had been receiving has also shrunk, as has the amount of oil it can produce. Funding generated from fees and taxes has also fallen following the flight of civilians, but the group can still cover day-to-day expenses – largely the paying of salaries to its estimated 30,000 soldiers and their families.
The Islamic State continues to recruit volunteers, but since it lost several border crossings, particularly on the Turkish border, it’s having problems moving volunteers into its territory. Instead, it's cultivating children in Iraq and Syria. For example, the Islamic State has established training camps and summer camps for elementary school students; they receive military training and study the Koran and ISIS theology.
Islamic State followers have told journalists that the goal is to prepare the next generation so that even if a battle is lost, the group’s mission won’t fade. There is currently no strategy to counter this mission, which could result in a change of command.
In any case, the major thrust by Western countries and the authorities in Iraq, Syria and Libya is against Islamic State centers such as Fallujah, Nineveh and Mosul in Iraq, and against Manbij and Raqqa in Syria – the easier targets.
Such a strategy is similar to the one against Al-Qaida in Afghanistan, Yemen and Sinai before the Islamic State became the new threat. The major challenge was clear when Al-Qaida set up branches and the branches set up cells that fought well.
If the Islamic State adopts that strategy and abandons its effort to control territory, with all the “glory” that this has brought it, the switch will require a maximum reliance on local military and intelligence forces, particularly in Arab countries that have only had partial success ending terrorist activity. This could be what the next stage in the war against the Islamic State looks like.